With four seats in federal Parliament to his party’s name and a government that sweats on his every move, Clive Palmer has good cause to feel pleased with the progress of the party he founded barely 18 months ago. Nonetheless, a number of Palmer’s stated aspirations continue to go unrealised. He is not, contrary to the ambition he proclaimed before the federal election, our nation’s prime minister. Nor did his party succeed in making its lead candidate at the Tasmanian election in March, one Kevin Morgan, the state’s premier — despite claims Palmer was making at the time from his secret internal polling.
But as any Palmer watcher can tell you, these are trivial details next to the ambition that really motivates him to get out of bed in the morning — ending the political career of Queensland Premier Campbell Newman. That particular date with destiny looms when Queensland’s state election comes due in the first half of next year.
Even before the tidal wave of Palmer United advertising unleashes itself on the Queensland public, there are historical reasons to expect that the party will prove a force to be reckoned with. In the wake of an electoral drubbing such as that suffered by Labor in 2012, it is not unusual for minor party insurrections to be fuelled by disaffection with the new government and an ongoing unwillingness to return to the party that was so forcefully ejected just a few years previously.
Such was the case at federal level after the landslide victories of Malcolm Fraser in 1975 and John Howard in 1996, which were respectively followed a term later by the onset of the Australian Democrats in 1977 and One Nation in 1998. The One Nation precedent might seem particularly auspicious, as the party had proved itself able to clear the formidable obstacles of Queensland’s unicameral parliament and single-member electoral system to win 11 seats at the state election held four months before the federal poll.
However, there are also reasons to suggest that Palmer would do well to keep his enthusiasm in check, alien to his nature though that may be. While Queensland’s optional preferential voting system was being put through its paces for the third time at the 1998 election, voters remained in the habit of numbering every box on their ballot papers — and conservative voters in regional Queensland especially were not so outraged by Pauline Hanson that they saw any reason to disturb their normal habit of putting Labor last.
Consequently, One Nation was able to prevail in five seats where Nationals preferences put them ahead of Labor candidates who had finished first on the primary vote. Since then, the incidence of voters allowing their preferences to exhaust by only numbering one box has soared, as familiarity with the system has increased and the major parties have found advantage in advising their supporters to make use of it.
This point is illustrated by Clive Palmer’s win last year in his Sunshine Coast seat of Fairfax, which he achieved despite running a distant second to LNP candidate Ted O’Brien on the primary vote. With the federal electoral system requiring that voters number every box, over 80% of Labor voters expressed a preference for Palmer over O’Brien, enabling him to close a 41.3% to 26.5% deficit on the primary vote by the narrowest of margins. This would not have been remotely possible under optional preferential voting, in which about two-thirds of Labor votes would have ended up on the exhaust pile.
A further note of caution is offered by the 2012 election and the experience of Katter’s Australian Party, which was then at the peak of its powers but has since been pushed to the margins. Katter’s party secured a quarter of the vote in northern and interior Queensland, but only managed to return two members — both of whom could just as easily have won as independents. Similarly, Palmer United is only likely to break through where the facts on the ground are particularly favourable.
It might be thought that such would be the case in the electorate of Gaven on the Gold Coast, which was one of the strongest areas for the party at the federal election. The seat is held by Palmer United’s nominal parliamentary leader Alex Douglas, who quit the Liberal National Party in late 2012. However, recent polling for The Courier-Mail by Galaxy pointed to the struggle the party is likely to face in showing Douglas some distance behind Labor in third place, despite holding a creditable share of the primary vote.
Another hope for the party is that it will unseat the Newman government’s controversial Attorney-General, Jarrod Bleijie, whose seat of Kawana is located amid the Palmer stronghold of the Sunshine Coast. The Palmer United candidate in Kawana is its other LNP-turned-PUP parliamentarian, Carl Judge, who had no reason to be confident of retaining his existing seat of Yeerongpilly in Brisbane’s south.
Further north, Gympie appears ripe for a minor party or independent challenge after LNP member David Gibson’s recent announcement that he will bow out, which followed shortly after it emerged he was charged (though later acquitted) with theft while serving in the army in 1999. Another theoretical prospect is the Bundaberg region seat of Burnett, should it prove of interest to its former independent member Rob Messenger — who presently has his hands full as chief adviser to Senator Jacqui Lambie.
With pickings elsewhere likely to be slim to non-existent — if Newman indeed goes down at next year’s election — it seems unlikely it will happen at Palmer’s hand. Indeed, Palmer must confront the troubling possibility that his party will end up doing his bete-noir a favour, should voters who would otherwise have plumped for Labor see it as an alternative means of expressing their displeasure.
William Bowe is a Perth-based election analyst and occasional teacher of political science. His blog, The Poll Bludger, is one of the most heavily trafficked forums for online discussion of Australian politics, and joined the Crikey stable in 2008.